Servus Servorum: Theology's Queenship and Modern Science

To call theology “queen of the sciences” anymore seems triply indefensible. First, there is a shallow, lexical, but all-too-common objection that theology is precisely not science, at least insofar as science is understood on the pattern of the natural sciences. Science is experimental, verifiable, and supported by evidence, whereas (the claim goes) theology begins in untestable, unfalsifiable, evidence-proof belief.

But even if this objection can be explained away, the idea that somehow theology sits atop a disciplinary hierarchy seems belied by the concrete organization and procedure of research and teaching institutions. If theology in fact lords over the other sciences, she does so at most in exile and probably as figurehead. Save a handful of physicists possessed by Laplace’s demon, I think you would have a hard time finding very many scientists and scholars who hold out a hierarchical ideal of the disciplines at all—some especially bold sociologists perhaps?

In any case, this opens onto a third concern with robing theology in purple: have we not, as a culture and in large part, done away with monarchy as a political ideal altogether? This might seem like another shallow, lexical objection. Is it not plain that granting royal titles to a field of inquiry is merely a metaphor? Is not inferring a political economy from that metaphor a hair pedantic?

If the objection is merely lexical, then certainly. But it can be illuminating in any case to ask why this metaphor? And in the answer to that question we discover a vision of scientific procedure at odds both with contemporary sensibilities (which may or may not be of any normative import), but also modern realities. As we will see, the shift from a medieval ideal of science to a modern one carries closely behind it, as both a logical implication and a practical reality, the democratization no less of scientists and scholars than of the sciences themselves.

No, if theology would retain her regal title, it cannot be as an autocrat. Still, I would not have theology abdicate entirely. The Catholic intellectual tradition was invited to conceive of theology’s authority autocratically not foremost on theological, but methodological grounds. This is to say that then-predominating scientific techniques and ideals suggested it. We will explore precisely how below. Modern scientific techniques and ideals, by contrast, suggest that if theology intends to keep her throne, its dais will have to be renovated accordingly.


It is commonplace in certain circles to appeal to Thomas Aquinas on the scientific character of theology. He explicitly poses this question, whether theology is a science, and asserts that indeed it is. He goes on to distinguish which kind of science it is: one that has God as its object, as sight has color as its object; one that receives its principles from a higher source, as music receives its principles from mathematics, and so on. Frustratingly for the modern reader of his Summa—accustomed to critical questions of ground, foundation, and the like—Thomas does not explain why theology is a science, i.e. what makes it scientific (ST I, Q. 1, A. 2). We glean from the objections and replies in Question 1 of the Prima Pars that science “proceeds from principles.” We see as well that a “whole science is contained virtually in its principles” (ST I, Q. 1, A. 7). What kind of procedure, then, is this scientific proceeding-from-principles? Well, to exposit what is “contained” in basic ideas and their interactions is to explore their implications. Such exposition is specifically deductive and generally logical.

So, while Thomas specifies theology among the sciences according to its object (God and all things in relation to God), we can further distinguish theology within the life of faith. Every Christian may lay hold of the truths revealed in doctrine, but the theologian takes hold of them as the principles of a basically logical procedure expositing, elucidating, explicating, though never explaining them. Every believer’s engagement with doctrine is governed by the demands of sanctity, but the theologian adds to this practical norm the constraints imposed by the rules of logical inference.

Thomas’s application of logical controls to the Christian’s encounter with doctrine operates against the backdrop of an ideal of knowledge. Science, on this view, produces knowledge that is certain. In fact, it is knowledge because it is certain. It derives this certainty from

  1. the certainty of its principles and
  2.  the necessity disclosed in valid logical inference.

Thus, this medieval view of theology as a science extends human understanding by illuminating the necessary ligatures within and between the doctrines. Thomas did not invent this ideal of science and knowledge. It has roots in the ancient Greek mathematical and philosophical mind and was developed as a technique by Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, among others. As Bernard Lonergan put it, this scientific ideal “was formulated by Aristotle in his Posterior Analytics; it envisaged science as true, certain knowledge of causal necessity.”[1]

It is not so hard, then, to see why theology reigns as queen of the sciences on this procedure. Indeed, there are multiple reasons. St. Thomas informs us that a higher science has more certain principles. Theology proceeds from the light of divine knowledge and, as this cannot fail in the same fashion that human reason can, so theology is the highest science. “Other sciences are called the handmaidens of this one,” Thomas writes.[2]

But when we advert to the logical character of theology’s procedure from these principles, we find another reason to place theology atop the political economy of intellectual disciplines. This reason rests on a more general affirmation than the specific certitude of revelation. This is an affirmation shared across religious faiths. It is affirmed among philosophers on a philosophical basis. In theology we call this affirmation the “doctrine of creation,” but among philosophers it has come to be called “classical theism.”

Anything we might investigate in any field depends on God as its principle in order to, among other things, exist. Moreover, whatever other intervening principles to which we might by logical inference reduce an object or field of objects, God will be logically prior to these as well. These intervening causes and principles also depend on God for their being what they are, because they depend on God to be anything at all. Whether we consider it in terms of scope (i.e. how much of the world falls under its purview—namely, all of it) or of logical priority, theology will prove the governing science so long as the ideal of science is the reduction of things to their principles according to the strictures of logical inference. After all, God is the cause of all things, visible and invisible, in heaven and on earth.

The obviousness—indeed, the necessity—of this arrangement owes (and here I will invert the usual accusations) to the reductionism at the heart of a logical ideal of science. I mean here to point not only to the technique of logical reduction, but also to the abstractive viewpoint it effects. The medieval ideal of science with which St. Thomas made such great achievements selects for the abstract, the essential, the universal, the necessary. These are genuine features of reality and logical techniques apprehend them reliably. Thus, the knowledge generated by the science that aimed at them was likewise genuine. Still, it achieved this knowledge by cleaving reality in two. Bernard Lonergan summarizes the nature of this cleavage forcefully:

If the object of Greek science was necessary, it also was obvious to the Greeks that in this world of ours there is very much that is not necessary but contingent. The Greek universe, accordingly, was a split universe: partly it was necessary and partly it was contingent. Moreover, this split in the object involved a corresponding split in the development of the human mind. As the universe was partly necessary and partly contingent, so man's mind was divided between science and opinion, theory and practice, wisdom and prudence. Insofar as the universe was necessary, it could be known scientifically; but insofar as it was contingent, it could be known only by opinion.

He continues:

Again, insofar as the universe was necessary, human operation could not change it; it could only contemplate it by theory; but insofar as the universe was contingent, there was a realm in which human operation could be effective; and that was the sphere of practice. Finally, insofar as the universe was necessary, it was possible for man to find ultimate and changeless foundations, and so philosophy was the pursuit of wisdom; but insofar as the universe was contingent, it was a realm of endless differences and variations that could not be subsumed under hard and fast rules; and to navigate on that chartless sea there was needed all the astuteness of prudence.[3]

Now, the ancients and medieval are not to be blamed for this scientific reduction to the abstract, the essential, the universal, and the necessary. It allowed ancient and medieval cultures to, in admittedly select and imperfect ways, lift themselves above the fog of myth and magic that closes in even the most technologically, economically, and politically sophisticated peoples. It imposed (and continues to impose) much needed controls on the beliefs held in common by scholars, by nations, even by the Church.[4] Still, if we insist that only the classical ideal of science is properly scientific, we commit the inexcusable obscurantism proper to every reductionism. Such methodological obstinacy forgets that a discipline has come to its achievements by adopting one abstractive viewpoint among many, by asking one class of questions and not others.

While many specialists have fallen beneath the reductionist’s myth of omnicompetence, still modern science taken as a totality avoids the classical cleavage. The procedure of modern science aims, the way Lonergan sees it, at “complete openness,” at the “exclusion of every obscurantism,” “at the complete explanation of all phenomena.” By such explanation is meant not reduction to principles, but “the determination of the terms and intelligible relationships that account for all data.”[5] Where the ideal of science against which St. Thomas measured theology would limit itself to the abstract, essential, universal, and necessary, modern science accepts no such limits.

And the dilation of viewpoint in which this modern ideal consists has consequences both for how modern science proceeds and for the kinds of results it anticipates. “Its object,” Lonergan writes, “is not necessity but verified possibility: bodies fall with a constant acceleration, but they could fall at a different rate; and similarly other natural laws aim at stating, not what cannot possibly be otherwise, but what in fact is so.”[6] Nor is this transformation of procedure and its corresponding object limited to the natural sciences. So too, Lonergan thinks, with the Geisteswissenschaften:

Modern studies of man are interested in every human phenomenon. Not abstract man but, at least in principle, all the men of every time and place, all their thoughts and words and deeds, the accidental as well as the essential, the contingent as well as the necessary, the particular as well as the universal, are to be summoned before the bar of human understanding.[7]

It is a mistake, however, to suppose that this shift away from the abstract, essential, universal, and necessary produces less-than-genuine knowledge because it is consequently probabilistic, incomplete, provisional, and approximate. There is good metaphysical reason to adopt the modern scientific view that the “law” of falling bodies, for example, is contingent, not necessary. This too rests on the doctrine of creation and the basic insights of classical theism. The cosmological arrangement that produces the rate at which objects fall on earth (like every other really existing thing) depends on God’s knowing and loving decision that it should exist as, when, and how it does. But contingency is nothing other than dependence on something else for being.

Now, you certainly can work out something like an abstract, universal, and necessary definition of trees, say, and it will hold on the supposition that there are in fact trees. But, as I am fond of reminding my students, once there were no trees. What is more, there is no good reason to stop at such generalities as essential definition provides. In fact, to do so on the supposition that you can always just deduce the remaining arboreal particulars may hide significant respects in which your ostensibly necessary definition is belied by some overlooked element among the accidents, particulars, and contingencies from which you have abstracted. And in this respect, despite its lack of certitude, the omnivorous intellectual appetite of modern science produces more knowledge and better.

If perhaps in so brief a space I have persuaded the partisan of medieval scientia that modern science is indeed an advance in human techniques for understanding reality, still he or she might object that such knowledge is unattainable, that scientific knowledge of reality on this model can never be achieved. But on the conception of the modern scientific ideal we have been exploring, “modern science is, not a ready-made achievement stored for all time in a great book, but an ongoing process that no library, let alone any single mind, is expected to encompass.”[8] On the medieval ideal of scientia, all of the sciences could be, in principle, logically reduced to a single viewpoint and this viewpoint could be the achievement of the maximally insightful theologian.

Modern sciences, whether natural, human, or theological, admit of no such reduction. They are not just de facto, but de jure collaborative. They depend upon, contribute to, and frequently revise a fund of understanding held in common by scientists and scholars in myriad disciplines around the world and across the decades, even centuries. There is simply no legitimate autocratic monarchy in the modern sciences, but only a distributed and decentralized confederation of institutions, fields, disciplines, specializations, and practitioners. The modern ideal of science is, in a word, democratic. It cannot, on this ideal, be otherwise and remain scientific.


You reader may notice that I have done nothing at all so far to defend the notion that theology is queen of the sciences. The truth is that it is not at all clear how theology will be scientific at all according to this modern ideal. There are good reasons to suppose it cannot. Lonergan again:

The modern notion of science tends to replace theology, which treats of God and all other things in their relation to God, with religious studies, which treat of man in his supposed dealings with God or gods or goddesses. For a modern science is an empirical science . . . it begins from data, it discerns intelligible unities and relationships within data, and it is subject to the check of verification, to the correction and revision to be effected by confrontation with further relevant data. Now such procedures cannot lead one beyond this world. The divine is not a datum to be observed by sense or to be uncovered by introspection. Nor will any intelligible unity or relationship verifiable within such data lead us totally beyond such data to God. Precisely because modern science is specialized knowledge of man and of nature, it cannot include knowledge of God.[9]

On the other hand, to suppose that if God cannot be fit within the frame of modern scientific procedure, therefore God and the relationship of creatures thereto is not a legitimate object of knowledge at all would prove only a further surrender to reductionist obscurantism.[10] It would transmogrify modern science’s empirical principle into an empiricist dogma. Still, the status of theology among the modern sciences remains a question—indeed a genuine, live, and vexing one.[11]

Conversely, theology poses a rather vexing question to modern science in return, a question about whether or not the modern scientific project can or even should hold together in the long run. The dirty secret of all science, whether medieval or modern, is that it depends on scholars and scientists for its realization. But scholars and scientists are, I am sorry to report, merely human (and sometimes a little less). Now, with the classical ideal of science’s constricted field of objects comes constriction in the task of controlling its procedure. It benefits from a canon of logical rules that one might learn in the course of a few math or philosophy courses. The modern ideal of science implies, by contrast, the unending adaptation of a core procedure (“the scientific method” or “responsible scholarship”) to the particular demands of an unending field of concrete, particular, contingent objects. The task of generating these techniques and of communicating methodological successes to subsequent generations has been and continues to prove something of a heavy civilizational lift.  

Even worse, the democratization demanded by modern science’s ambition to explain all data creates a daunting problem of interpersonal cooperation and belief. The scope and scale of data to be explained in modern sciences is enormous, and to make advances scientists and scholars must draw on a common fund of ideas to get up to speed in their area. For this reason, belief is integral to modern science (no matter how much the scientistic opponents of religion may object), for it is by belief that one withdraws the capital for any scientific or scholarly enterprise. But there is an immense field of credible ideas. Consequently, the scientist or scholar has to choose among them largely on the basis of the testimony of other scholars and scientists, which is to say on the credibility of the people who put them forward.

But people are frequently bad. And the more people you involve, the more of this badness you invite into the process. It is not for nothing that Plato’s Republic ensconces philosophy among an elite that is provided special privileges, subjected to rigorous, holistic formation, and is governed by a virtuous monarch. He understood that the cultivation and preservation of wisdom could little survive the . . . let us call it “unevenness” of the human spirit at large.

Modern science demands democratization, but can it survive it? We do not seem to have the civilizational stomach to create, fund, and maintain research and teaching institutions that are proportionate to the challenge. Can the good faith and credit of the modern knowledge fund be sustained with so many parties involved and, through them, so many opportunities for epistemic shenanigans? One need only look to the history of modern science for anecdotes that suggest not: race “science,” social Darwinism, the weaponization of atomic energy, and on and on.

Yet, anecdotal evidence is among the weakest. Arguably, much of the evidence points the other direction. For Lonergan, “the prestige of this new idea of science is unquestioned, its effectiveness has been palpably demonstrated, its continuing necessity for the survival of the earth's teeming population is beyond doubt.” Indeed, its very ubiquity in modern culture hides its successes, even as we read this essay on pocket computers connected to a global, high speed communications network. Nor does this success owe exclusively to the quality of the procedure, but also to the enactment of that procedure by our fellow humans. The cultivation of this new ideal of science has been a profound intergenerational, cross-cultural achievement. Once one shakes off the patently irrational modern myth of automatic progress, the improbable character of the whole thing looms into view.

On the other hand, I have said before that the Christian view of reality implies things should be worse than they are. There is no reason to suppose the prosecution of modern science and scholarship should be excepted. If scientists and scholars would fully embrace the ambition of the modern ideal, they must make modern scientific procedure in all its messy, human concreteness an object of investigation. Now, as David Bentley Hart’s The Experience of God reminds us, this invites some general philosophy of God to ground the idea that reality is susceptible to human inquiry in the first place. Scientists and scholars are permitted, of course, to merely assume that the universe is inherently intelligible, but that assumption calls out for explanation, especially if it turns out to be correct. Now, as Hart is also reliable to remind, that explanation will come through primarily logical procedures, although David Burrell has shown convincingly that the philosophy of God comes to this classical theist conclusion usually on the back of culturally embedded religious doctrines.[12]

But there remains the more specific matter of explaining how it is that something like modern science and scholarship, so demanding of widespread and unprecedented epistemic virtue, continues to blossom despite a litany of downward pressures: short life spans, cognitive defaults, personal ambitions, interpersonal grievances, institutional mismanagement, and on and on. Nor do merely humanist explanations satisfy. The duration and relative steadiness of this flowering implies the persistence of the very moral habits in question. The uncannily regular appearance of what is facially improbable—in this case, intellectual virtue—calls preliminary assessments into question. In a very general way, of course, Christian theology already asks this question and has sought to exposit the manner in which Christian teaching answers it. Saintly living, theologians insist, has God’s grace as its principle; otherwise non posse non peccare.

And so it is that the prospect of applying the general insights of Christian theology (soteriology specifically) to the conundrum of modern scientific success implies a revised respect in which the discipline may retain something analogous to its medieval title. It is both a methodological and a practical impossibility that theology should anymore reign by laying down iron laws of logical necessity. However, theology might (if it can effect the needed transitions) illuminate for scientists and scholars the conditions under which they may sustain faith in their intellectual colleagues and enterprises, have hope for their future labors and the future of their disciplines, and even endure the hardships that come with love for the all-too-human scientific endeavor. In this way, theology may become servus servorum scientia, a servant of the servants of knowledge, and thereby (to riff on Matthew 20:25–28) first in the University of God.[13]

Still, if theology would perform this regal service to the natural and human sciences in our world, it will have to do so scientifically—that is, as a science among sciences. A final word, then, on that prospect from Fr. Lonergan, as true now as it was in the 1960s when it was written:

Contemporary theology and especially contemporary Catholic theology are in a feverish ferment. An old theology is being recognized as obsolete. There is a scattering of new theological fragments. But a new integration—and by this I mean, not another integration of the old type, but a new type of integration—is not yet plainly in sight.[14]

On this score, I can offer no simple path forward. Lonergan left us some suggestions, but—as with all answers—if one does not appreciate the force of the question he was addressing, one will not discern in it the criteria by which they should be evaluated. Whether they measure up or not, we would miss the point if we expected him (or anyone else) to play the role of Maximally Insightful Theologian, mastering the matter with his System. No, theology will only become scientific in the modern sense when theologians become scientists of this new type and together.

[1] Bernard Lonergan, “Dimensions of Meaning,” in Collection, CWL 4 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1988), 238 (emphasis added).

[2] ST I, Q. 1, A. 5; that we find these principles more dubitable is attributed to the relative feebleness of human minds and not at all to their source in the divine one.

[3] Lonergan, “Dimensions,” 239 (emphasis added).  

[4] One finds the principle of excluded middle governing the opening lines of Nicene Creed to which I alluded earlier. For God is the maker of all things, and Jesus Christ, the Son of God is “not made,” leaving only one alternative ontological status: divinity.

[5] Lonergan, “Dimensions,” 239, 241.

[6] Lonergan, “Dimensions,” 238–9.

[7] Ibid., 241.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Lonergan, “The Absence of God in Modern Culture,” in A Second Collection, CWL 13 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2016), 107.

[10] “…the [modern] science of religion…cannot, of course, escape the radical dilemma confronting modern science. In the measure that they follow the model provided by natural science, they tend towards a reductionism that empties human living and especially human religion of all serious content. In the measure that they insist on their specific difference from the natural sciences, they risk losing their autonomy and becoming the captive of some fashion or fad in philosophy” (Ibid.).

[11] Lonergan spent much of the 1960s putting this question to the Catholic theological community, but by the 1970s—spurred by a nearly-fatal bout with lung cancer—he endeavored to set down his crack at an answer. This can be found in his terse, but ambitious work Method in Theology (Bernard Lonergan, Method in Theology, CWL 14 [Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 2017]). What little appreciation his answer receives today is matched only by the persistent obscurity of the question itself.

[12] David Burrell, Freedom and Creation in Three Traditions (Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame University Press, 1993).

[13] Thanks to Anne Carpenter for reminding me of the papal title, servus servorum Dei, from which this is adapted.

[14] Lonergan, “Absence,” 108.

Feature Image: Edwin Austin Abbey, The Queen in Hamlet, 1895; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


Jonathan Heaps

Jonathan Heaps just completed a year as Visiting Assistant Professor of Religious and Theological Studies at St Edward’s University.

Read more by Jonathan Heaps